Jay Jay French: Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock'n'Roll

Jay Jay French has a book out, but it's not what you might think, or not exactly.

French earned fame in the 1980s as the lead guitarist for transvestite metal band Twisted Sister, which produced some of the most recognizable—and widely licensed—rock music in history: "We're Not Gonna Take It." "I Wanna Rock."

These days, French stays busy in other ways. He has a podcast in which he chats with other musicians, members of the music industry, and miscellaneous folks. He's a Beatles scholar with an impressive cache of Beatles records and memorabilia—he seems to have kept everything, in pristine condition—and writes a column about the Beatles for Goldmine magazine. He's also a passionate audiophile.


The future Jay Jay French at age 12. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of the Jay Jay French archive.

The book—Twisted Business: Lessons from My Life in Rock'n'Roll—is not just another rock'n'roll memoir. It's a business book, co-written with business guru Steve Farber. The bulk of the book, chapters 4–10, presents Jay Jay's formula for success in words that spell out "T-W-I-S-T-E-D"—"T" for tenacity, "W" for wisdom, and so on, each element illustrated by stories from French's life. I am not a regular reader of business books and have little interest in the topic, but this one strikes me as unusual for the genre, and in my opinion it does add up to something real and useful.

Really, though, that's beside the point. What matters is that Jay Jay is busy promoting the book, which means he's doing interviews and telling stories. I had the opportunity to sit down with him for several hours over two days in his modest (though very nice) apartment—which, it turns out, is just a 25-minute walk from my Manhattan one. I also got to listen to his excellent hi-fi system.


Twisted Sister v1.0.

My exposure to Jay Jay convinced me that he's one of those rare people who are born at the right time in the right place and then make decisions, even if unwittingly, that put them at the center of things and keep them there for a while. In some ways, his story is the story of his place and time.

Did I mention that he's an audiophile?

Listening to records
Jay Jay French—born John French Segall—was born in New York City in 1952. The apartment he lives in now is the one he grew up in. He attended his first concert—The Weavers at Carnegie Hall—in 1963, and over the next few years would attend many, many more.

Here's a story from the book, which Jay Jay repeated in our interview: In February 1963, Segall was home sick from school. His mother gave him a table radio to keep him entertained. He was listening to WABC AM, the biggest radio station in the US. The number one song was "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula. ("I've waited so long for school to be through ...") "In those days, they played those songs every hour on the hour. 'Hey Paula' was number one, and when I hear that refrain, 'Hey, Hey Paula,' it takes me right back to when I was 11 years old."


Photo by Sal DeBenedetto.

Of course, "Hey Paula" was soon dethroned—knocked off by the Chiffons' "He's So Fine," and when it happened, 11-year-old Segall was indignant. Hoping to restore his first sonic infatuation to its rightful place, he went to a record store—Only Records on Broadway—and bought the single. The record never made it back to number one, but now Segall was a record collector.

In 1964, the Beatles arrived. When he saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, Segall knew what he wanted to do with his life.

Segall sold Boy Scout cookies on commission to earn money to buy a bass guitar. He had been a happy Boy Scout until the year before, and the previous year he'd set cookie-sales records. He liked the scouts—he liked earning merit badges and was working toward becoming an Eagle Scout. But then he got thrown out for having long hair. In need of revenue for the scouts, his former scoutmaster approached him about selling cookies on commission: 10 cents/box.

That entrepreneurial impulse proved enduring. At age 15—about 1967—he tried smoking marijuana. He liked it. He started selling it. He made a little money. He bought more. He sold more. He made more money. He sold other things, too—other drugs. He used the money to buy guitars.

At the Fillmore, he saw big amplifiers. He wanted one. He bought one. He became a regular there. $3 to get in. He saw all the big acts. The first time he saw Led Zeppelin, the Woody Herman Orchestra was the opening act. "Bill Graham did that sort of thing," French told me.


Dealer, activist , and future rock star John French Segall at age 17.

He showed me the program for that concert. He showed me other programs. He seems to have saved all of them, in amazing condition. His apartment is not cluttered, but somehow it contains a lot of things. During our time together, he showed me lots of collectibles—records, documents, guitars, portable transistor radios, an original Marconi transistor in a small plastic bag—almost all in great condition. French is the consummate collector—an archivist.

Here's a story anyone who writes about French and this book is likely to repeat: One day, after he'd bought that big amplifier, he got high, put that amplifier in his apartment window—the same apartment, the very same room we were sitting in—and turned it up to 11.

"A woman is knocking on the door," he told me. "I thought it was the cops. I opened the door. She said, 'You son of a bitch. Do you know how fucking loud you are?'" "I said, 'What apartment you live in? I don't recognize you.' She said, 'I live on ...' and gave an address five blocks away. "'You heard me on Columbus Avenue?'"

Jay Jay liked it.

The hippie years
"I'm dealing, and playing in bands, and I'm going to the Fillmore, and at this point, I'm also involved in antiwar activities at my school. ... I brought the SDS from Columbia"—that's Students for a Democratic Society—"down to my high school, and I saw H. Rap Brown give a speech (footnote 1). That led to a riot, and then I got thrown out of my high school." They let him back in and then threw him out again. "Then I sued them for violating my constitutional rights." Due to a series of favorable coincidences, the school system wanted to settle. He requested a transfer to another high school where his friends went, and it was granted. That's where he met Eddie Ojeda. They started playing together. "We formed a band almost immediately and played at a talent show and got knocked off the stage by a Jackson 5 wannabe; they killed us."


The sleeve for Twisted Sister's first, independent 45.

Segall became a well-known high school revolutionary. He was profiled in a teen magazine, Ingenue. He wanted to stay out of trouble, but he got sucked into activism at the new high school and led a student takeover of the principal's office. When the police came, he was in the bathroom. Everyone else got arrested.

He was still in school, but he wasn't going to classes. He had his first acid trip on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral.

Here's a point where the story gets hazy, with discrepancies between our interview and the book. He met a girl, a great-granddaughter of Robert E. Lee. He visited her in Richmond, Virginia, near the monument to her great-grandfather. Or maybe he moved there. That's when the Kent State shootings happened. They led to more rioting, including at the University of Richmond, just down the street. Segall went home. Graduation was just a couple of months away, but he hadn't been attending classes.

"I said to my mother, 'Look, fuck this. I'm not going back to school.' She's like, 'Well, you're graduating.' I said, 'There's no way I'm graduating. Fuck the man.' 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'I'm going to become a rock star.' I said it because I just needed to shut her up, and [I knew] that would end the conversation." But that was it; he was done.

Segall was in demand. "Everyone wanted me to go on all the revolutionary activities, and everyone wanted me at their parties." Because of the drugs.

Here's a detail I doubt you'd find in very many business how-to books. "Most people don't want to talk about the positive aspects of dealing drugs. But the truth is, I became really self-confident, really street smart, and really good at math. I mean, if it weren't for dealing, I wouldn't be half the man I am today."

Segall moved out of the house and in with Gail—Robert E. Lee's great-granddaughter—and her brother. For two years, he sold drugs, used drugs, jammed, went to shows. Then the drug scene changed. In 1971 or '72, "heroin comes into the scene and wipes out everything just the way they threatened it would."


Twisted Sister, MoFi Edition.

"We thought it was all hippie flower-power peace, love, pot, hash, LSD." But when heroin hit, "it deteriorated, really bad." Drugs and John French Segall got divorced. "I pulled out of it to save my life at the very last minute. ... I stopped on a dime. I said, 'Done. Been there, done that. Don't need it. Goodbye.'

"I said to my mom, 'The good news is, I'm not doing it anymore. The bad news is that I've decided to join a transvestite rock band.'" It was 1972.

Twisted Sister
Jay Jay auditioned for a band called Silver Star and became "the last original member"—his words. It was a promising gig. "I joined an organized band. They knew who they were. They knew what their image was going to be, this transvestite/Bowie thing. Because that's what was happening at the time."

In 1971, David Bowie wore a dress on the UK cover of The Man Who Sold the World. The New York Dolls formed the same year. Jay Jay saw them at the Fillmore, several times. "I know the guys, and if they weren't dressed the way they were, they would be laughed out of town. They were a terrible band. I went a lot, because I couldn't believe how much publicity they were getting for a band that sucked so badly." He loved the look, though.

John French Segall needed a stage name. For a while—months—he was Johnny Heartbreaker. But then he put on a pair of shades and became Jay Jay French.

"We immediately got jobs—immediately. That wasn't a problem. The band was a good band."

An important piece of Beatles lore is the years the band spent working the clubs of Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, before hitting it big. "The Beatles woodshed it for three years," French said. Twisted Sister did it for a decade, although they went through many lineup changes along the way.

"In the tri-state area in the '70s, the drinking age was 18. Phony proof could be made in shop class, ... everybody had phony proof." Music clubs proliferated, starting off in small corner bars and steadily growing. "200, 300, 400 people, and then 500, 600, 700 people, ... then 5000 people. There were clubs that held 5000 people just to go out and hear a band do Zeppelin covers, or Doors covers for that matter. If you are part of that circuit and you grew into that circuit, ... 10 years into it, you're just as good as any professional rock band, because you're playing in front of thousands of people all the time." Twisted Sister was playing five shows a night, six days a week. They played thousands of shows.

Jay Jay had left substance abuse behind; the other band members hadn't. "The problem with the band was that it was full of drinkers—not druggies, but drinkers, drinkers who read the magazines and wanted to emulate the Rolling Stones or The Velvet Underground and just get fucked up, because that's the beauty of the culture.

Footnote 1: Brown, a civil rights activist, was the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He's currently serving a life sentence for killing two sheriff's deputies in Fulton County, Georgia, in 2000. In 2020, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Aja1's picture

While I don't particularly enjoy his music, I found this to be an enjoyable read. I respect a musician who is able to listen enough to be an audiophile. More often than not I find that musicians need you to listen to them, not the other way around.

Michael David's picture

"Twisted Sister was playing five shows a night, six days a week. They played thousands of shows."

As far as the content is concerned i have two thoughts. JJ has written that Twisted Sister played over 9000 shows. 5 sets a night are sets, not shows. And you can get closer than the mixing console, they’re called instruments and microphones.

Twisted Sister music never grabbed me either, that said, i do respect anyone with the courage to get up on stage and perform music.

Allen Fant's picture

Another +vote for great article- JA2.

bhkat's picture

....when you can't hear your wife but can still hear the audio equipment. :)

teched58's picture

"Transvestite metal band." Really? Aside from the provincialism of this characterization, it's not really correct. The New York Dolls are a good example of a band which engaged in gender-bending dress. Twisted Sister was merely flamboyant. Dee Snider always looks like a guy, face paint notwithstanding.

Vocalion's picture

Jay Jay French has a podcast called the Jay Jay French Connection. In June of last year he devoted two podcasts to interviews with Michael Fremer and Ken Kessler together. They’re absolutely worth hearing.